The night before I took the family to see The Railway Children, I spent an hour online booking some other children’s theatre. “Some.” By the time I’d finished taking advantage of the Polka’s 30% off if you book three shows in the main house offer, and the Unicorn’s 15% off when you buy for multiple shows in a single season offer, I had spent a frankly embarrassing total of £215.60. My discounts totalled £41.40; there were no box office fees. That money bought me eight adult tickets and 12 child tickets for seven shows.
If we had bought them from the official site, the Sunday matinee premium seats that the producers of The Railway Children very kindly gave my family for free, in return for this review, would have cost us £71.50 each. (The price includes a “Limited Edition Show Poster”. I didn’t stay on the site long enough to discover what other fees are charged.) Two adults, two children.
Maybe it’s just a matter of simple mathematics – the auditorium is much larger – but I heard a much wider range of accents across the class spectrum among the audience at The Railway Children than I tend to hear at the Unicorn or the Polka.
The Railway Children is a kind of theatre I – and so my children – almost never see. It’s treat theatre, event theatre. Theatre that you see because you know the story and trust it. Theatre that you go to as an extended family, three generations. Theatre that you see to celebrate a birthday – sure enough, before the show begins, the cast walk up and down their platform stage, chatting cheerily with the crowd, locating subjects for a chorus of Happy Birthday To You – not theatre that is woven into the main fabric of life. The day before I took the family to see The Railway Children, I co-hosted an event called Who Are Our Audiences and How Can We Engage With Them Better?, an attempt to think through the relationship between critics and marketing/communications and how we might work together better to bring in new audiences. It was a good, wide-ranging, ideas-packed conversation, but at no point did we talk about enticing the audiences for big family shows like The Railway Children to spend the price of a single ticket for that show on six tickets for all the family to see something at the Polka.
That now feels like an oversight.
Because I was a bit taken aback by how good The Railway Children was, and how absorbed we all were by it. It’s mostly told in flashback, three young adults – Serena Manteghi as Bobbie, Jack Hardwick as Peter, Louise Calf as Phyl – recalling the year when Peter turned 10 and their father mysteriously disappeared. They address the audience directly throughout, telling us when they’re withholding secrets, or talking nonsense, or glossing the action to move the story along. There are pleasing collisions and slippages between the characters’ past and present selves: any attempt to remember the chronology of events is quickly derailed by their childhood propensity to argue about nothing. All the performances are a bit jolly-hockey-sticks forced, but that’s addressed too: “You don’t need to lay it on so thick,” Hardwick tells Manteghi pointedly. I wasn’t expecting any of this, so it was doubly pleasing to get it.
We didn’t read Edith Nesbit’s novel in advance because we wanted the theatre to tell us the story, and Mike Kenny’s adaptation does so with the gentle, erratic pace of a slow train through Adlestrop. Each scene or episode feels like a station stop: it bustles, settles, then the characters pick up steam to move onwards – a feeling emphasised by Damien Cruden’s staging, along two thin platforms either side of a railway track, between which slide additional platforms on runners, pushed and pulled by boiler-suited crew who aren’t given nearly enough recognition for their hard work. Not knowing/remembering the book meant that the political subtext of a lot of these scenes was something else that was surprising and gratifying. There’s a terrific piece by Lyn Gardner that connects events in the story to Nesbit’s life: not just the poverty that the children grapple with, or the mother’s glancing feminism, but the arrival in their rickety cottage of a Russian refugee, escaped from a labour camp in Siberia, where he was sent for writing a “beautiful book about poor people and how to help them”. This adaptation connects those events outwards, to a society still painfully unequal, and a world in which it’s possible to be flogged once a week for writing a blog. Meeting the Russian writer inspires the mother of the railway children to instruct their prayers: “Ask God to show his pity upon all prisoner and captives”, she tells them, then repeats herself twice, thrice, emphasising more strongly each time that little world “all”. With every repetition, she moves away from the story: away from the Russian, away from her imprisoned husband, to every person in prison now, whatever their crime, trapped in a penal system that ignores the context of their actions and offers scant rehabilitation.
So often that context is poverty and The Railway Children gazes at poverty through the eyes of privilege, illuminating both sides. Bobbie insists that in London the family was “ordinary – as ordinary as you can be with a house full of servants”; so not very ordinary at all, except through the lens of a specific class, as Peter tries to recognise. In the countryside the family are poor and reliant on others: on Perks the station-master not to criminalise Peter for “mining” the railway’s stock of coal; on an old gentleman seen each morning passing by on the train, who pays for their mother’s medicine; on the local doctor not charging them for treatment. What emerges is a vision of a cooperative society, where everyone gives according to their ability, to others according to their need. The children give not only in small acts of heroism but in inspiring charity among the adults around them: it’s emotionally rushed, but the scene in which they confront Perks with a set of birthday gifts contributed by local villagers is extraordinary. I would have given this years ago, if I’d thought it would be accepted, says one. This isn’t charity, says another; I’ve always admired a man who pays his way. Perks – beautifully played by Jeremy Swift with a spring in his step and a dimple in his cheek – is sullen and aggressive with wounded pride at first, but confesses his error with fragile grace. Maybe it’s hokey, maybe it’s idealistic – but as a vision of utopia, it looks perfectly reachable, if only we could allow ourselves to get there.
The same day I took the family to see The Railway Children, theatre-makers/novelist/Fun Palaces campaigner Stella Duffy started a hashtag on twitter: WhatIsTheValueOfArt. The answers she was given were emotional, spiritual and political in tenor, related to expanded experience and thought, heightened capacity to empathise and the ability to revision society. In its sort-of-old-fashioned-sort-of-not kind of way, The Railway Children offered all that value to me, and two more things: the sight of my son, on my right, goggle-eyed with admiration for the 1893 LSWR engine, one of only 20 ever built, usually kept at the Shildon railway museum and transported down to London along the M1; and my daughter, to my right, flooded with tears when Bobbie glimpses her father through its steam. Both of them saw something, felt something, in those moments that they might not otherwise have accessed. Was that worth £71.50 each?
Hand on heart, no. If we hadn’t seen The Railway Children for free, we wouldn’t have seen it at all, because I would always rather spend £71.50 on seven tickets than one. It saddens me that so many parents choose the expensive ticket and make theatre incidental rather than integral to their children’s lives. Money imposes its own warped sense of value, and theatre needs to work harder to demolish that.